Synopsis from book flap, courtesy of Amazon.com:
Once Were Warriors is Alan Duff’s harrowing vision of his country’s indigenous people two hundred years after the English conquest. In prose that is both raw and compelling, it tells the story of Beth Heke, a Maori woman struggling to keep her family from falling apart, despite the squalor and violence of the housing projects in which they live. Conveying both the rich textures of Maori tradition and the wounds left by its absence, Once Were Warriors is a masterpiece of unblinking realism, irresistible energy, and great sorrow.
Reading this book was such a colossal chore, which is why I didn’t finish it. Don’t quote me but I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald once dismissed Jack Kerouac’s novels as an example of “typing, not writing.” I believe the same sentiment applies here.
Once Were Warriors focuses on the Hekes, a Maori family living (if it can be called that) in the slum of Pine Block; the Hekes’ home is directly adjacent to the palatial mansion of the pakeha (meaning white, and therefore much loathed, apparently) Tramberts. Way to kick a brother when he’s down, right? Beth and Jake are both too drunk and disillusioned to care much for their kids: Nig, who has joined the local gang; Boogie, who was sentenced to a juvenile correctional facility (his parents were unable to attend the sentencing as they were both too hungover and Jake had beaten beth to a pulp the night before); and Grace, who is the fragile, sensitive girl and, in keeping with Alan Duff’s cliched characterizations, is doomed by her situation.
There are several things that make this novel hard to read. Alan Duff does not write in the conventional way; his sentences lack punctuation and are often grammatically and syntactically incorrect (hence the comparison to Jack Kerouac). The characters are bogged down by Mr. Duff’s persistently morbid vision and simplistic moralizing; Mr. Duff then does a 180 and resorts to cheap sappiness for the ending (which I won’t reveal here).
That’s not to say that the book wasn’t emotionally stirring. Given the state of race relations here in the US, I’m sure that many American readers would be able to relate or would at least be familiar with the Hekes’ situation. But the author’s aggressively dismal tone throughout the book ruins the reading experience; the characters never emerge from their roles as the bitter outcasts, and Mr. Duff’s (misguided) political and social grandstanding show that he has no sympathy for his own characters. Mr. Duff’s self-important moralizing screams of arrogance and self-satisfaction.
So, yes, Once Were Warriors is thought-provoking (although that’s not necessarily meant in a positive way), but is it good writing? I’m inclined to say, no, absolutely not.